These days Champagne seems like a tranquil enough region, but it hasn't always been that way and that was never more true than in the famous Aÿ Riots of 1911 which started here in Boulevard du Nord.
In fact there were disturbances in many towns and villages but Aÿ seemed to be the epicentre
That year grape growers, or vignerons, in Champagne were just about on their uppers following a series of very bad harvests. No harvest meant no income and many vignerons were practically starving.
What’s more, several of the bigger champagne houses were suspected of buying their grapes from outside the Champagne region. From the champagne houses’ point of view this may have made commercial sense: they needed grapes to produce their champagne, but what the vignerons objected to was the champagne houses using grapes from outside the region and still passing off the resulting produce as champagne.
You can imagine that this was like a red rag to a bull to the struggling vignerons and when they got wind of the fact that the government was about to pass a law abolishing the delimited area of Champagne altogether – which would have officially condoned bringing in grapes from outside the region - that was the last straw. The powder keg of their anger burst into flame and it was Aÿ that got in the way.
Some 6,000 people rampaged through the streets setting fire to the buildings of every champagne house suspected of using grapes from anywhere other than Champagne and breaking into their cellars to smash the bottles stored there.
La rue du Nord looks peaceful enough now, but this is where some of the worst rioting took place and below there’s a fascinating picture of the cellars at Ayala. It’s small but interesting.
The big dark blocks are stacks of bottles which you’ll recognise if you’ve ever been in a champagne cellar. What’s not usual is the rubble all around. That’s made up of hundreds, maybe thousands, of smashed bottles!